The Surprising Birthplace of the First Sperm Bank

What happened when "fatherhood after death" was proved possible
Frozen sperm at the California Cryobank (Reuters)

In a country scandalized and outraged so easily, the sperm bank has been naturalized. To say one works at a sperm bank would cause no more of a commotion than to say one works at an investment bank, surely.

But it was not always so.

There had to be a first sperm bank, and those early bankers felt the excitement and fear of the new.

The year was 1952. They were two doctors in Iowa. And they had figured out how to freeze sperm, thaw it back to active life, and use it to help families to conceive.

The year after they began, a nationwide poll found 28 percent of Americans approved of artificial insemination. That winter, three babies born from thawed sperm were born.

* * *

If at first Iowa seems like a surprising place for the technique to get its start, consider this: humans are animals, too, and Iowa was a hotbed of animal research, particularly in the realm of dairy cows, which farmers had been artificially inseminating since the 1930s.

The bull-semen market was already large—and by the early '50s, up to three-quarters of breeders were using sperm from champion bulls. There was a big incentive for researchers to experiment with ways of spreading champion sperm around as widely and for as long as possible. Plus, with bulls, the stakes were lower.

The idea of assisted reproduction in humans elicited fear and skepticism. Such technologies weren't yet seen as a tool that would enhance reproductive choices, but as a possible threat that might be wielded by the state. 

Consider how writer George Orwell imagined the future in Nineteen Eighty-Four

"Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother."

While Orwell and others may have worried about the social implications of reproductive technologies for humans, animal researchers were celebrating the genetic improvement of their herds as reflected in better milk production. It might have been unnatural, but it wasn't unholy.

So farm researchers became the leading edge of biological research into reproduction. And one thing they'd discovered was simple and amazing: sperm are rugged little biological machines that will always, no matter where and no matter what, look for an egg to fertilize.

A champion bull having his semen collected. (Reuters)

By the early 1950s, British scientists had successfully frozen sperm and inseminated a cow, leading to the birth of a little calf they named Frosty.

And it was about this time that a graduate student named Jerome Sherman began tinkering with freezing his own sperm, "testing freezing protocols in search of a technique that would maximize the percentage of viable sperm," according to Northeastern law professor and historian of science Kara Swanson's fascinating paper, The Birth of the Sperm Bank, from which this account is largely drawn.

There were three main variables that Sherman optimized by building on existing work in animals: how slowly to cool down or heat up the sperm, how much semen to use, and what kinds of additives to mix into the solution.

It's not hard to test for viability, after all. After thawing out the sperm, Sherman could simply look at them under a microscope and count how many were moving well. To this day, visual inspection remains the dominant way of evaluating sperm quality.

Sherman had been more focused on freezing kidney tissue as part of his academic work, but after meeting Raymond Bunge, a urologist out to make a name for himself, his sperm-freezing hobby became his actual scholarly job.

Their first paper together describes a technique that seemed to keep the sperm swimming. Add some glycerol—a sugary chemical sometimes used in low-fat cookies—then slowly bring down the temperature. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine.

By the time the paper came out, three women had been inseminated with the previously frozen sperm. Bunge was on the staff at Iowa's fertility clinic, and so within months of Sherman's experiments beginning, the duo had real patients on whom they could test the new procedure.

By July, three pregnancies were in progress: they were to be the first children conceived with sperm that had been frozen and thawed. The two scientists had quickly translated animal breeding science into human reproductive medicine.

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